In Philippines, Benigno Aquino's political honeymoon intact at 100-day mark

Philippines President Benigno Aquino is enjoying an extended political honeymoon despite his government's bungled handling of a deadly bus hijacking and criticism he is moving too slowly on reforms.

Romeo Ranoco/Reuters
Philippine President Benigno Aquino sits in front of the presidential seal after speaking at the La Consolacion college auditorium in Manila, Oct. 7, to mark his first 100 days in office.

Elected in May by a landslide on an anticorruption platform, Philippines President Benigno Aquino is enjoying an extended political honeymoon. Polls show that “Noynoy,” as he is known, remains popular despite his administration’s missteps, including the deaths of eight Hong Kong tourists during a bus hijacking.

But as Aquino marked his first 100 days in office on Thursday, questions remain over how far he can overhaul governance in a country that has seen many false dawns. Critics say that Aquino, a scion of a political dynasty, is surrounded by family loyalists and presides over a factionalized cabinet.

Congress has yet to see any substantial legislation, such as details of how he will deliver on a pledge of two extra years of mandatory schooling. Nor has he explained how he plans to pay for his initiatives without raising taxes, another campaign promise.

Administration officials say that money will be found by cutting graft and waste in public services. Aquino said Thursday during a televised speech that he had suspended suspicious projects and cut salaries of public officials, and took credit for a strengthening economy. “We are spending wisely,” he told an invited audience at a college in Manila.

Aquino didn’t mention the Aug 23 incident in which a former police officer hijacked a busload of tourists to protest his dismissal from the force. The standoff ended with the gunmen killing eight tourists as police stormed the bus. An official report castigated government officials and senior police officers for mishandling the emergency, which drew strong criticism from China over the deaths of its citizens.

In recent weeks, Aquino has dithered over the report’s recommendations to punish those held responsible, including Rico Puno, a shooting buddy who is undersecretary of the Interior. An announcement is expected Friday, and aides insist that disciplinary action will be taken where appropriate.

“There is going to be accountability,” says Ricky Caradang, a presidential spokesperson.

Needs to show he can deliver

Prospero de Vera, a public administration professor at the University of the Philippines in Manila, says Aquino has emerged largely unscathed from the hijacking crisis, as the public saw that officials failed to follow his orders and showed poor judgment in the field. He says the shine on the new president has yet to fade. But he warns that Aquino has to show that he can deliver more than feel-good speeches.

“I think a lot of people are frustrated that they’re moving too slowly for comfort,” says de Vera.

Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, left office in June under a cloud of corruption allegations. In 2005, she faced impeachment proceedings in Congress over electoral irregularities in her 2004 reelection.

In his first executive order on taking office, Aquino created a truth commission to probe Arroyo’s nine-year administration. But there is skepticism that this will yield prosecutions. In May Arroyo was elected to the House of Representatives. Should she feel threatened, she could use Congress to thwart the president, say political analysts and Western diplomats.

Aquino has blamed much of the country’s ills on the previous government, a theme he continued in Thursday’s speech. Some analysts say he has been slow to switch from a campaign attack mode toward offering concrete policies that go beyond righting the wrongdoing of the past.

“The tendency is to blame the last lot,” says a Western diplomat.

Filipinos happy about change at the top

Sen. Manny Villar, who ran for president in May, says his former opponent still enjoys strong support, in part because Filipinos were so relieved to see a change at the top. He says he “wishes Noynoy well,” and that his honeymoon will continue.

But he warns that someone must be held accountable over the hijacking in order to draw a line under an embarrassing episode that hurt the country’s reputation.

“There has to be pain. Otherwise you continue feeling bad,” says Mr. Villar, a real-estate tycoon who polled third in the presidential election.

In the aftermath of the hijacking tragedy, Aquino canceled planned visits to Southeast Asian neighbors. He is known for being a nervous flier and didn’t have a valid passport when he took office. Last month, he attended the United Nations General Assembly in New York and returned from the US with promises of more than $2 billion in new investment in the Philippines. Foreign policy appears to be a low priority for his administration, say Western and Asian diplomats in Manila.

While campaigning, Aquino voiced support for an end to extrajudicial killings and attacks on news media, which rose sharply under Arroyo’s administration. But human rights groups say there has been little follow-up and that security forces are rarely investigated over alleged disappearances. Since Aquino took office, three journalists and 16 leftist activists have been reported as killed, said Human Rights Watch.

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